More Than a Home, A Place to Thrive
In this celebrated New York neighborhood, Black homeownership has been the rule for many decades.
January 31, 2022
Writing for National Geographic magazine’s October issue, ESPN senior writer Michael Fletcher documented the storied history the St. Albans, Queens, the New York neighborhood where he grew up. St. Albans, a long-time bastion of Black homeownership, exemplifies the ups and downs of America’s fair housing struggle, says National Association of REALTORS® Vice President of Policy Advocacy Bryan Greene, who also grew up in St. Albans and was interviewed for the article. Early Black owners faced a range of challenges, from lending discrimination to angry neighbors. More recently, during the Great Recession, the working-class and middle- class residents of St. Albans found themselves the target of predatory refinancing scams and foreclosure. Fletcher's article captures not only the historical barriers but also the individual challenges and triumphs many St. Albans families have experienced in their search for the American dream.This excerpt is published with permission from National Geographic. The full article, “Why Black Homeownership Thrives in This Special Pocket of New York City,” includes photographs of many St. Albans families by New York photographer Elias WiIIiams. (Subscription required.)
Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, Olney Marie Ryland enjoyed visiting her aunt's house in Addisleigh Park, the most exclusive section of St. Albans, Queens. The neighborhood was only a mile from her family's home, but it exposed her to an entirely new world of high society, culture, and the arts.
"I used to think, That is where the rich people live," says Ryland, now 71. Ryland's aunt lived in a wide-line Cape Cod with a before-its-time open-concept design, customized by her architect husband. Ryland's mother also had a friend who lived in the community, across the street from William "Count" Basie, the legendary jazz pianist and composer. Sometimes Ryland was invited to swim in Basie's pool.
In 1997, after her aunt turned frail and her home became available for purchase, Ryland and her husband jumped at the chance to buy it, swooping in just ahead of an investor. "The place has always been in my life," she says. "Thank God we were able to get it."
As it happened, the Rylands not only scored a beautiful home but also joined a rich tradition of Black homeownership that has thrived in and around St. Albans since the late 1930s, despite a series of racist policies aimed at keeping Black people out of the neighborhood.
"[African Americans'] ability to buy homes was highly racialized from the start," says Anne Price, president of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, which researches economic justice. "There was a very intentional exclusion of Black people from vehicles that allowed White people to buy homes and build equity from those homes. And that history is still very much a part of what we're seeing today." At the end of 2019, the Black homeownership rate was 42%, while 70% of White families lived in homes they owned. The 28 percentage point gap between Black and White homeowners was two points larger than the gap in 1960.
"St. Albans tells America's fair housing story in microcosm," says Bryan Greene, a former HUD official who's now a vice president at the National Association of REALTORS®.
The first subdivisions in the community were on the drawing board by the turn of the 20th century, around the time that New York City's five boroughs were consolidated into a single city. Addisleigh Park was part of an early wave of development, says Greene, a St. Albans native. The enclave was modeled after English garden suburbs, with wide, tree-lined streets and sturdy colonial and Tudor homes set back on large, landscaped lots.
Addisleigh Park was swank and, early on, exclusively White. A 1926 New York Times article about the sale of building lots said the neighborhood "carries a land and house restriction of the highest type." In the 1930s and 40s such indirect barriers were replaced by racial covenants with explicit rules: No Black people were allowed.
The restrictions eventually gave way. first informally, then legally. Pianist Thomas "Fats" Waller is credited with being among the first African Americans to buy a house in Addisleigh Park, moving there in 1938. Other Black homeowners soon followed.
After the 1948 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that restrictive covenants were unconstitutional, more African Americans moved into the neighborhood. Through the years, Black luminaries including singer Lena Home, baseball icon Jackie Robinson, civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, soul music superstar James Brown, and hip-hop pioneer LL Cool J have lived in St. Albans.
In the ensuing decades, the celebrities were joined by other upwardly mobile African Americans in southeast Queens. Bus drivers and plumbers, mail carriers and subway motormen, airport cargo handlers, corrections officers, teachers, principals, cops, and municipal clerks moved to the area, helping to transform it into one of the nation's largest and most vibrant centers of Black homeownership.
Growing up in an apartment in the South Jamaica Houses, a low-income development known locally as the 40 Projects, Loree Sebastien knew a different world was just two miles away in St. Albans. It was a world of sturdy homes and manicured lawns, owned by Black folks.
"I just grew up hearing that there is a rich legacy here, that you might not find a cluster of Black homeowners like this anywhere in the country," says Sebastien, 48, a computer programmer. "When I moved here, I knew I was moving up."
She wasn't disappointed when she moved in. The streets were immaculate, the neighbors friendly. "It is a prosperous, supportive place that is more quiet, nicer, neater than I thought."
Sebastien busied herself updating her home. But soon enough, she learned things were not as idyllic as they appeared. When the foreclosure crisis hit several years after she bought her home, Sebastien was stunned by how many people in the neighborhood were hurt by the fallout.
"I am upper middle class, and to have to go through this was amazingly shocking," she says. "It was like being in the projects again, watching neighbors being evicted. It decimated the area." At one point, her own mortgage servicer mistakenly began moving her property toward foreclosure. She hired a lawyer who quickly found the problem: a paperwork error made when her mortgage changed hands among several companies after she bought her home.
Many of Sebastien's neighbors suffered much crueler fates, as did many Black homeowners across the country. Southeast Queens was the area of New York City hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis, which was directly linked to the high number of subprime home loans made in the years before the housing bubble burst.
In 2006, 60% of all new home loans in the greater St. Albans area were high-cost loans, compared with 23% citywide, according to New York University's Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.
"With predatory mortgages, we are always grinding to keep up," says I. Daneek Miller, a New York City council member representing southeast Queens. Miller, a former bus driver and union leader, says he has tried to help many families in mortgage distress.
Through it all, Miller says, southeast Queens has remained a center of Black homeownership. New affordable condominiums are now luring young buyers, and many people raised in family-owned homes there have continued the tradition.
"This is the enclave of homeownership in the city," Miller says. "We have such a rich, rich legacy, and we have to keep it up."
Updated: September 30, 2022